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A free summer lunch program for kids has an unusual problem: It has money to give away food, but it could use more takers.

At the same time Republicans are axing food stamps from the House’s version of the farm bill, the Summer Food Service Program — funded by separate legislation — remains untouched, yet is widely underused.

Only 9.8 percent of kids who are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals get summer lunches in Washington, one of the lowest rates in the nation. Participation could ease a summer burden on low-income families: According to a national No Kid Hungry report, more than half of the families who rely on school meals find it harder to make ends meet in the summer; they end up spending an average of $316 extra per month on groceries.

Among the reasons for the low participation are a lack of awareness about the program among potential users and lack of transportation to the lunch sites. United Way of King County has launched a two-year, $500,000 outreach campaign called One Million Meals to improve participation this summer. Along with other volunteers, the campaign is sending 37 members of the national poverty-fighting program, AmeriCorps VISTA — Volunteers in Service to America —
to help at some of the 243 lunch sites around the county.

One is at Garfield Community Center, where some 80 kids ate beef taco salads last Wednesday. Volunteers greeted them by name as they streamed in one by one, and then dozens at a time.

“There’s always been summer meal programs, but there just hadn’t been that extra oomph to really get kids psyched,” said Lauren McGowan of United Way of King County, who directs One Million Meals.

Campaign volunteers put up fliers and door hangers, make announcements at churches, contact day camps — everything to get the word out.

“We’re doing all the dirty work, even if it’s walking up and down the street,” said Olivia Smith, one of two AmeriCorps VISTA members who organize the program at Garfield.

Threads in all colors spill out in front of CurDesia’ “Deezy” Hudson, who’s volunteering her lunchtime to teach kids at the Garfield lunch site how to make friendship bracelets.

She remembered being sent to get free summer lunches when she was a kid, too. “We wouldn’t get by without it.”

The friendship bracelets are the latest activity to get kids excited about coming back everyday. A life-size Scrabble game, coloring contests and raffles for Seahawks cards have also passed through the Garfield gym. Kids also get their own version of a rewards card: 10 X’s representing 10 lunches can be redeemed for a prize.

Planning these activities is up to the AmeriCorps VISTAs. After lunch, they’re out in the community spreading the word.

Linda Owens was approached by VISTAs members at a local park. She’s visiting from Georgia this summer to take care of her 5-year-old grandson, whom she now takes to the lunch program every day. “I think it’s awesome,” she says.

The number of kids eating lunch at the Garfield site has increased from 15 in the first week to a current peak of 80. The sites throughout King County are on track to serve 450,000 meals this summer and 550,000 next year, with the ultimate goal 1 million meals.

Smith, VISTA member at the Garfield site and a sophomore at Seattle University, is also leveraging her local connections to boost participation at her site.

She recruited Hudson — an old schoolmate from Cleveland High – and hopes to get volunteers from her alma mater and her church community to staff game booths at the lunch site throughout August.

Catering to communities

Community connections matter because local organizations are key to the distributed model of free summer lunches.

The federal government sets nutritional guidelines and reimburses usually $3.41 per meal, but the rest — from the actual food to outreach efforts to site activities — is all up to the local organization.

Schools districts, churches, Boys & Girls Clubs and other not-for-profit groups can apply to sponsor meal sites in neighborhoods where at least 50 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on family income. The city of Seattle is Washington’s single largest sponsor, with 70 sites throughout the city.

Once a site is established, all kids and teens 18 and younger are eligible for meals. No proof of income is required; kids just have to show up.

Because local sponsors are reimbursed for every meal they serve, it doesn’t cost the sponsors or the state extra money to feed more kids. More than $7 million additional federal dollars would flow into the state if Washington’s summer lunch participation rate reached 40 percent, according to the national Food Research and Action Center.

Although Washington ranks near the bottom, there is low participation in summer lunches nationally. Efforts to change that, however, have been happening at a more local level.

In 2008, the nonprofit Children’s Alliance convened a Summer Meals Work Group for Washington that included organizations such as Food Lifeline and United Way of King County. Since then, the number of sponsors has increased 26 percent and the number of sites 27 percent.

The One Million Meals campaign is building on that work. By looking at the data from sites each week, it is identifying which outreach strategies are effective.

Individual sites also tailor their food to the local community. For example, in Lake City, where there is a large Muslim population, the lunches never contain pork.

Feeding kids in rural areas

Because lack of transportation can be a particular hurdle for families in rural areas, some sites are going out to kids rather than waiting for kids to come to them.

Manson, in unincorporated Chelan County, takes meals out on a truck to housing complexes and trailers. Auburn and Kent school districts in King County have also long used school buses to bring meals to dozens of local apartment complexes.

This year, the Federal Way School District retrofitted three retired school buses and took it even a step further. The three bright-green FRED (Fun, Read, Eat, Dream) buses are stocked with a hot cart and fridge as well as games, books and computers with Wi-Fi access.

“When we showed the bus to kids the first time, we had kids hugging it and kissing it,” said Mary Asplund, the district’s director of nutrition services.

The FRED buses, funded in part by One Million Meals, stop at seven low-income sites around the district. The Federal Way sites have already served more than twice as many lunches in June and July as they did all of last summer.

FRED’s full name hints at its goals beyond just providing meals. Summer learning loss is a leading factor in the achievement gap for kids from low-income families. When summer camp is too expensive, these kids usually just stay at home without enrichment activities and fall behind.

But getting hungry kids fed is the first — and perhaps easiest — step because with food, at least, the money is there.

“It’s just one of those things where you can so easily see the solution,” said McGowan of United Way. “It’s just mobilizing the resources.”

Sarah Zhang: 206-464-2195 or On twitter @sarahzhang